During the Bush years, former Fox News CEO and serial groper Roger Ailes famously authored a set of daily “talking points.” The themes and phrases that came out of Ailes’s office circulated widely, and were repeated not just by hosts on his intentionally slanted news channel, but by “conservative” guests on other networks as well as by Republican politicians. Ailes wrote the daily script and a wise Republican knew that if they followed, they could surf the wave over dozens of on-air faces backing their play. Ailes, a Nixon administration “dirty trickster” like fellow alum Roger Stone, defined the relationship between Rupert Murdoch’s upstart news network and the Republican Party—follow our lead, support what we support, and you’ll go far.
But in the Trump era, things have mutated. Even if Ailes’s right-hand man, Bill Shine, is sitting in the White House as the deputy chief of staff for communications, it’s no longer a matter of talking points and catch phrases. Instead, Fox and Trump engage in a circular pattern, one in which each cites the other for “evidence.” Trump can say anything—anything—and know with certainty that Fox will be there to catch him within the hour with multiple statements in support of his position no matter how distorted, bizarre, or simply wrong. If Trump decides someone is on the outs, Fox will chase them. If he claims a “win” that doesn’t exist, Fox will support that claim.
But just as often, the impetus begins with Fox. A new assault on a Democratic member of Congress, or xenophobic statement about immigrants, or some claim about an economic policy appears … and within minutes, Trump has tweeted it, repeated it, screamed it at a rally crowd. Sometimes Trump doesn’t bother to cite the source of these morning “insights” and Twitter inspirations, but more often than not he makes no effort to disguise them. He quotes and credits Tucker Carlson, or Jeanine Pirro, or Sean Hannity as if that citation lends credence to the statement. Trump regards Fox with the kind of reverential awe generally held for the Pope and senior scientists—both of whom Trump abhors.
Two years ago, as the shape of this pattern became clear, Daily Kos began an investigation into how information was moving between the Fox boardroom and the Trump White House. Were there regular meetings? Did Kellyanne Conway shuttle over a daily memo? Was there someone on the Fox side who regularly showed up in the West Wing with a bag of bagels and a morning list? But soon enough that investigation was dropped because the point of contact is obvious. Trump is the point of contact. He’s made that clear. He not only carved up his daily schedule to allow for more time watching and retweeting Fox, he gets tucked in at night by a phone call from Sean Hannity. Trump and Fox aren’t just inseparable, they’re indistinguishable.
Monday’s report by Jane Mayer in the New Yorker has brought fresh attention to this issue, and her detailed, powerful account of the relationship between Trump and Fox demands to be read.
It’s not enough to describe Fox as Trump’s propaganda wing. Because it is equally accurate to say that Trump is their mouthpiece. Investigations are still underway to see how effective Vladimir Putin has been at pulling Trump’s strings. But for Sean Hannity, the back door is always open.
The New Yorker article points out something that other reporters have noticed since before Trump even moved in at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue; Fox has not just special access, but a role within the “team.” Sean Hannity isn’t just on the phone with Trump at night, he’s visiting with him in the West Wing, or with Trump when he travels, all at times when other reporters are being held at a distance by the Secret Service. Fox gets not just exclusive access and exclusive insight, they also have unlimited influence. They speak, Trump repeats, Trump speaks, they defend. Fox has had forty-two exclusive interviews with Trump over the last two years. The rest of the media, all together … ten. It’s no mistake that CNN has gotten exactly none, because when Trump declares that he doesn’t like CNN, or NBC, or ABC, he has a good reason. It’s not that they’re likely to ask difficult questions or say unflattering things. They are the competition to FoxTrump.
The article also opens up something that wasn’t as immediately obvious to the regular viewer of either Trump or Fox—just how much Fox did to handicap other Republican candidates and make sure that Donald Trump came out on top. Whether it was airtime, a preview of debate questions, or some shade thrown at rivals, Trump got what he needed to “surprise” the Republican Party … thanks to the entity that had, over a decade, become the absolutely only acceptable source of information within that party. With Fox completely wedded to his victory, the idea that Trump would lose the Republican contest was effectively nil. Though, considering that Sean Hannity was actually on stage with Trump during the campaign, maybe this shouldn’t have been such a surprise.
As the Washington Post reports, FoxTrump is also not happy about the New Yorker report poking a finger into their symbiosis. With the publication of Mayer’s report, Fox went on the attack. Trump followed dutifully, repeating statements by both Carlson and Hannity before declaring how “degraded” the magazine has become.
If the tweets only prove the more evidence for the connections Mayer pointed out, it doesn’t really matter. FoxTrump has obliterated the boundaries between news and opinion as certainly as they have the barriers between press and White House. Whatever Trump says is truth. Whatever Hannity says is truth. Whatever anyone on Fox says is truth. And anyone who says otherwise isn’t just fake news, but a threat to the single, unified body politic of FoxTrump.
But what the New Yorker article clearly details that should be daunting isn’t just the extent to which Fox backs Trump’s play and makes it possible for him to be as horrid as he wants to be, it’s the extent to which Trump’s play is simply their play. The amount of Trump in FoxTrump may be no more than a orange teaspoon in a sea of Murdoch. Trump sits in the chair, but words and music are provided by the other, much larger, portion of this merged organism.